This is the final instalment of a three-part series on Russian comics by Maria Evdokimova. See here for part 1, “The History of Russian Comics: An Interview with Misha Zaslavskiy” and here for part 2 “What comics are published and read in Russia?”
From “pictured stories” to comics
Plenty of contemporary Russian comic authors – particularly those who are in their mid-30s and whose childhood was spent in the USSR – consider Soviet illustrators and authors of “pictured stories” (the Soviet term for comics) their teachers. Soviet artists like Egeniy Migunov, Gennadiy Kalinovskiy, Genrich Valk, and Gennadiy Novozhilov created caricatures, illustrations, and animated cartoons that have become classics. The new generation of artists has grown up under the influence of their works.
At the same time, the influence of foreign artists was considerable. The French comic magazine Pif was very popular in the USSR. This magazine used to be sold in foreign literature aisles of book stores, and certain stories were issued in the magazine Nauka I zhizn (Science and Life). Another source of inspiration was Hergé’s Tintin. As a child, artist Roman Surzhenko used to be fond of the popular stories about Petya the Red-Head by Ivan Semyonov, and he assumes that those stories were influenced by the Tintin comics.
In 1988, the comic studio KOM was founded, which was located under the editor’s office of the daily newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva (Evening Moscow). In this studio a great number of popular Russian comic artists started their creative careers. Among them are Askold Akishin, Andrey Snegiryov, Andrey Ayoshin, Evgeniy Zhigunov, and Misha Zaslavskiy. These authors started a number of interesting projects. Misha Zaslavskiy (see part 1 for an interview) and Askold Akishin created the graphic adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, which was first published by one of the Russian publishing houses, but was taken on by French publisher Actes Sud in 2005. Today, Askold Akishin’s nickname is “the father of Russian horror”. Among his most prominent works are the graphic adaptations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s work, the stories by Ray Bradbury, Wilhelm Hauff, and the series Pionerskaya Pravda: Horror (The Truth For Young Pioneers: Horror) based on spooky stories told by Soviet schoolchildren in the 1970s. In 2013, publishing house Boomkniga published Akishin’s graphic novel My Comics Biography. The book is a combination of the author’s personal life story, the story of his creative career, and the history of comics in Russia. In 2015, the Russian publishing house Alt Graph released his graphic novel based on H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.
Andrey and Natalya Snegiryov, who also started their career at the KOM studio, created one of the most popular and long lived comics projects in Russia: the children’s comic series Keshka. This comic was published in the weekly newspaper Semya (Family) from 1991 to 1998, and it was later issued as a collected edition. Andrey and Natalya’s colleague and editor Misha Zaslavskiy says: “The Snegiryovs made heroic efforts to save the series about the cat Keshka, which continued existing even during the slack period in the Russian comic publishing industry. This spotty cat with its constant stupid facial expression was helped out by loyal readers’ love and the authors’ diligence.” The Snegiryovs created other children’s comic series after this, and two comic books dealing with the themes of living independently after growing up in an orphanage or boarding school, titled What will happen tomorrow and The Bride, were published in 2015.
The artist Andrey Ayoshin (nicknamed Tzratzk) – who also started at KOM – created caricatures and comic strips for newspapers in the 1990s. In 1991 he started an internet library of comics published in the former Soviet republics, titled Komiksolyot. This online resource had a great impact on the development of Russian artists. Comic book writer Roman Surzhenko recollects: “To tell you the truth, I grew dumb with astonishment when I saw Komiksolyot. I had a feeling that a huge train was blasting past me and I had to jump onto this running train. In the website news archive I found an “Artist wanted” advertisement posted quite a while ago, and I sent a few examples of my works…” Andrey Ayoshin now works as a freelance illustrator and comic artist.
Collaborations with foreign publishers
Analyzing Russian comic artists’ biographies, one cannot but notice that it’s because of their favorite comic books that almost all of them have had an urge to draw comics since childhood. The Russian comic author Yuriy Zhigunov, who as a child was greatly influenced by Tintin and for whom Belgian comics have forever become a model of the medium, is now working in Belgium. Misha Zaslavskiy, who used to work together with Yuriy at the KOM comic studio, remembers: “Since the Russian comic community was filled with dismay and the most optimistic prognosis sounded like: ‘We have to wait for another five or ten years until comics market has appeared in Russia and that’s when we can get down to business’, Zhigunov wisely suggested that one might have to wait for that hypothetical comic market forever. So he made up his mind to search for the job wherever the market already existed.” In 1994, Yuriy left for Brussels and visited the editorial office of French publisher Le Lombard. There, he presented his work Pisma Krivtsova (Krivtsov’s Letters) which was originally intended for European readers and a European market. Only one year later this comic album hit the shelves in Europe. The main work by Zhigunov that was published by Le Lombard was his artwork for a series of adventure and espionage graphic novels titled Alpha, and a little while later he became a scriptwriter for this series.
Another example of childhood inspiration is the story of artist Roman Surzhenko. Le Lombard decided to expand the universe of comic series Thorgal and was considering a few artists for working at new episodes, and Roman was asked to contribute. Roman himself connects this decision to the fact that he had been exploring Grzegorz Rosinski’s style since he was 19 years old. Grzegorz Rosinski, the artist who created immortal illustrations for Thorgal, was Roman’s favorite.
While on the subject of Russian artists’ collaboration with foreign publishers, Artyom Trakhanov should be mentioned. This young but already experienced comic writer had his works published by Image Publishing House in 2014. Artyom was creating his non-profit web comics Mad Blade when the famous script writer Steve Orlando took notice of the young author and offered him the opportunity to collaborate. Their collaborative work resulted in the science fiction series Undertow. Six issues of this story were published in the USA from February to July of 2014, and in 2015 this comics was published by publishing house Komilfo in Russian.
Today, Artyom is the one of the most wanted professionals in the Russian industry, as well as a desirable guest at Russian comic festivals. One of the most popular questions he is asked is “How do you find opportunities to cooperate with foreign publishers?”. Artyom answers that you should be as active as possible on social media. One more fool-proof formula for starting collaborative projects with foreign publishers is by working with international agencies, just as in the sphere of traditional literature. For instance, in addition to many years of experience and knowledge of Rosinski’s style, the Tomato Farm Agency also helped Roman Surzhenko become the author of the spin-off series The Worlds of Thorgal.
Fanzines and festivals
International comic festivals have had a great impact on the Russian comics community. The comic art festivals KomMissiya (The ComMission), held since 2002 in Moscow, and Boomfest in St. Petersburg, held since 2007, have become communication platforms and magnets for everyone who is interested in comics. The organizers of Boomfest have created a publishing house called Boomkniga, one of the few publishers that works with Russian authors. They work with well-known artists such as Askold Akishin, and with a new, younger generation of comic artists – often participants that stood out at the Boomfest festival.
For example, the artist Danya Udobniy from Kaliningrad first found himself taking part in the Boomfest festival with his fanzines, which were quickly sold out. These zines were then picked up and published by Boomkniga. Invited by the director of the publishing house and the festival, Dmitriy Yakovlev, Danya returned to the festivals as a speaker, telling his story of “how he started drawing comics, to help people muster up the courage to start (in case they want to).”
Since 2013, the festival Sam Izdam (“Publish It Yourself”) is held in Russia. In 2014, the graphic novel Borovitsky joined the shortlist of this festival. Borovitsky’s author is Ivan Eshukov, whose biography is typical of Russian comic writers. Like many authors, he started a comic studio with fellow artists, took part in comic festivals, and created book illustrations and commercial comics. Ivan is now creating, publishing, and selling his graphic novel Borovitsky in his home town Omsk. It’s in the town Omsk of 1919, at that time the capital of White Russia, that the scene of the detective graphic novel is set.
Ivan Eshukov is one of the few Russian comics authors to have received high appreciation from fellow artist David Lloyd. Lloyd appeared on the “Videosalon” web show on the Maxim Russia YouTube Channel. In this web show star guests evaluate their Russian colleagues’ creative works. The artist Nicolay Pisarev posted on his home page: “It’s so pleasant when your book is praised by readers. But it’s even more pleasant when the reader is David Lloyd!” Lloyd liked Nicolay’s graphics drawn for the surrealistic comics Predmety (The Objects). Nicolay has explained that that the storyline of Predmety was inspired by Carl Gustav Jung’s work.
Daily routine and dreams of Russian comic authors
The Russian comic authors’ community is quite intimate and fruitfully cooperative. Two interesting projects that united several artists were published in 2015. One of those projects is the collected book of comic strips Tsvety na zemle (Flowers On the Earth), a graphic adaptation of the Russian writer Andrey Platonov’s stories, published by Grotesque Publishing House. The other team project is the collected book of comics Gorelovo, published by Komilfo Publishing House. Vitaliy Terletskiy, the creative director of the publishing house, was the scriptwriter for 12 stories, drawn by different artists in various styles but following a common plot-line.
As a rule, Russian comic authors have a regular job in one of the related professional spheres (design, printing industry, illustration) which supplies them with a steady income. The young artist Sasha Baranovskaya, a regular participant of Boomfest, says: “I plan to develop my skills to become a commercial illustrator in the first place, but to make a career as a cartoonist in Russia is easier said than done. I was educated to be a fashion designer, so, who knows, maybe I will still have to work within my specialty”.
What are Russian comics about? For instance,Veter umer (The Wind is Dead) by Danya Udobnyi, Chuvak (The Dude) by Zakhar Yaschin, and Bez tela (Without body) by Julia Nikitina (Ner-tamin) are about existential conflict, looking for one’s place in this life. Pionerskaya Pravda: Horror by Askold Akishin, Borovitsky by Ivan Eshukov, Doctor Lutsid by Alexey Volkov, and Aurora: drugaya istoruya (Aurora: another story) by Maria Konopatova and Timofey Mokienko are fantasy stories unfolding against the background of real Russian history. Undertow by Artyom Trakhanov, Predmety by Nicolay Pisarev, Bez slov (Without words) by Evgeniy Yakovlev, and Architects by Ilya Obukhov are fantasy comics. Ksenia Kudo works in the shōjo manga genre: “I don’t really like horror. The stories I want to tell my readers are about friendship, respect and love.”
The authors’ plans are also various; Nicolay Pisarev wants to draw a “ghastly apocalyptic story about a serial killer with more than three characters, with a lot of dialogues and action scenes, and also to create a children’s fairy tale for grown-ups based on Slavonic mythology”. Zakhar Yashin is working on his autobiographical comic, “recollections of childhood and youth, with love and death and modest provincial adventures”. Alexey Volkov plans to create a comic strip in a pulp-fiction style inspired by the peculiarities of his country. And Julia Nikitina is now creating a graphic novel about love for music.
Maria Evdokimova is from Omsk, Russia and works in public relations. From 2006-2008 she worked at the publishing house Green Cat, which published series by Sergio Bonelli Editore. In 2007 she prepared the exhibition “Comics in Russia: yesterday, today, tomorrow” in her home town. At the moment she is working with the Russian comic author Ivan Eshukov. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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